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Posts from the ‘Rock music’ Category

Todd Haynes’ ‘The Velvet Underground’

Probably the best compliment I can pay to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Underground documentary is to say that it’s made in the spirit of the music. His switchblade editing, abundant use of split-screen and fantastic material from all sorts of archives creates a tone parallel to the sounds we’re hearing and to the lives we’re watching.

An important decision was not to include testimony from anyone who wasn’t actually a witness to the events the film records. Every voice you hear bears the glory and the wounds of what happened in that short time when Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker and Nico rewrote the rulebook. Cale is wonderfully engaged with a story that, for him, ended badly. Tucker still sounds like the real glue of the band. The voices of the departed members are heard in archive interviews. Among others who shed light are the veteran avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, the actress Mary Woronov, the superfan Jonathan Richman, the composer La Monte Young, the scenemaker Danny Fields, Merrill Reed Weiner, Lou’s sister, and Martha Morrison, Sterling’s wife. (No Gerard Malanga and only the briefest glimpses of Edie Sedgwick, which is a bit of a surprise.)

It’s quite a demure film, given the milieu; the sexual merryground is glimpsed but not explored. Neither is Haynes interested in deep musicology. He wants impressions rather than details, which keeps the film moving. He doesn’t try to analyse the divide in Reed’s personality between the brutal and the tender. But we do get a feeling for the characters, as when Cale sums up Nico quite beautifully: “She was a wanderer. She wandered in and she quietly wandered out again.” And we certainly get an idea of how the chemistry between Long Island doo-wop fan Reed and Welsh avant-gardist Cale turned 56 Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side into such a potent musical laboratory. Haynes leaves us with a lovely colour clip of Reed and Cale performing “I’m Waiting for My Man” during their reunion at the Bataclan in Paris in 1972, with Nico waiting in the wings.

Throughout the film, the great songs — “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin”, “Sister Ray”, “White Light/White Heat”, “Pale Blue Eyes”, “Rock and Roll”, “Sweet Jane” — are allowed to emerge in the perfect setting. And as they issue from big cinema speakers, you may yourself experiencing once again the seismic effect they had when you first heard them, brand-new. There were times when I wanted to cheer.

Hipster, still eminent

Of course there’s nothing really new to be heard on the pair of live albums Donald Fagen has just released, one under his own name and the other under that of Steely Dan: Northeast Corridor, a selection of the Dan’s songs recorded at the Beacon Theatre in New York and Boston’s Orpheum Theatre, and a concert version of The Nightfly, Fagen’s 1982 solo masterpiece, pieced together from those and a couple of other venues across the US. Why would there be? The original recordings were pretty close to perfect in the first place, or as close as Fagen and his late partner, Walter Becker, could make them across days, weeks and months in state-of-the-art studios.

So what’s the point? Perhaps it’s to allow us to replicate the sensation of hearing them for the first time, which is what even the slightest shift of emphasis or ornament allows. The slightly adjusted harmonies of the chorus to “Kid Charlemagne”, the melodica on “Aja”, the drum coda to “Reelin’ in the Years”, the brand-new rhapsodic trombone intro to “Things I Miss the Most”, the ceding of the solo bridge passage of “Maxine” to a member of the close-harmony backing choir — they’re small changes, but they help us to see the bigger picture anew. Otherwise the proportions and trajectories are much as they were on the originals — although in the case of The Nightfly the overall feel is a little more, shall we say, fatback: fuller and funkier, but not so much as to change the tone.

Maybe the most significant change is to Fagen’s voice, and even that doesn’t really alter the listener’s response. Always the instrument of someone who had to be persuaded to to take the lead on his own songs, and the more authentic for that, age has cost it some of its strength but none of its capacity to beguile and engage. It was always a sidelong voice, and his delivery of the confessions of a graveyard-shift DJ on The Nightfly‘s title track seems even more affecting.

When Fagen made The Nightfly, he was looking back 20 years to the time immediately before the Kennedy assassination, when capitalism seemed ready to share its material abundance throughout the western world. Now, another 40 years later, in a period of disillusion and uncertainty, the evocation of that period’s Madison Avenue-inspired optimism carries extra weight.

The musicianship across both albums is, of course, immaculate. Keith Carlock’s drums and Freddie Washington’s bass make those mid-tempo rhythms as crisp as a brand-new button-down shirt. The two-brass, two-reeds front line swivels on a dime (with a special mention for Roger Rosenberg’s baritone solo on “Black Cow”, and no blame to tenorist Walt Weiskopf for not quite being Wayne Shorter on “Aja” or Michael Brecker on “Ruby Baby”). Guitarist Jon Herington produces a great Denny Dias tribute on the euphoric “Bhodisattva” and pianist Jim Beard romps through “Glamour Profession”.

As a coda to the Steely Dan album, Fagen and his superlative quartet of backing singers leave the stage to a single-chorus instrumental arrangement of “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry”, a blues-ballad from a 1958 Joe Williams album. It’s a reminder of the depth of Fagen and Becker’s knowledge and love of music — as are these two albums as a whole. Which, come to think of it, is by itself a good enough reason for their existence.

* Steely Dan’s Northeast Corridor and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly Live are out now on Universal Music. The photograph of Fagen is from the booklet with the Steely Dan album and was taken by Nick Antaya.

Patti Smith at the Albert Hall

When she was 15 or so, the woman said, she’d dreamed about a certain boy, about walking down the street holding his hand. And now here she was, performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, and she was going to sing one of his songs. And at the end of a most elegant version of “One Too Many Mornings”, Patti Smith said quietly: “Bob Dylan.”

The last time I’d seen Patti was in 1995 at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, when she and Dylan were touring together. She came on to sing “Dark Eyes” with him during his acoustic section, and then she joined him in the encores for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. It was nice to be reminded last night of the history they share, and she honoured it beautifully on the very stage where, 55 years ago, he sang “One Too Many Mornings” with another band.

But that was just one highlight in a night crammed with them, starting with the lyric to “Piss Factory”, the B-side of her first single in 1974, which she declaimed unaccompanied to start the 90-minute set. That was electrifying, and at the end of the evening my only regret was that she hadn’t done more reading.

But would I have swapped that for the lovely “Grateful”, the driving Velvets drone of “Dancing Barefoot”, the collective exhilaration of “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a most surprising and tender mid-set version of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun”, Lenny Kaye’s dedication of the Stones’ “I’m Free” to Charlie Watts, the cathartic “People Have the Power”, which Patti wrote with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, or the thunderous closing run through “Not Fade Away”, when the instruments cut after the last “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be”, allowing Patti, the band and the entire pan-generational audience to bellow “You’re gonna give your love to me”?

What I also admired was the way she and the band — Kaye and Jackson Smith (guitars), Jesse Paris Smith (piano), Tony Shanahan (bass guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) — put on such a well calibrated show while keeping their garage-band rawness and honesty. Jackson Smith’s raga-rock solo on “Dancing Barefoot” was a beauty, as was Daugherty’s ability — probably learnt from reggae drumming — to leave spaces within a bar without losing power.

But I wasn’t really taking notes. I was on my feet, with everyone else.

All things must be remixed

“When I make a record,” Phil Spector said, “I don’t want to tell musicians, ‘Well, eventually it’s going to sound like this — you’re going to be in more echo.’ No, put it on now. You can’t take the echo off ‘Be My Baby’. You can’t take the echo off ‘River Deep — Mountain High’. It’s on Tina Turner forever. That’s my art.”

Not, however, when it comes to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Just over 50 years after the release of the hugely successful solo triple album, which Spector co-produced with the former Beatle, a new version of the album has appeared, in which the tracks have been remixed by Dhani Harrison, George’s son, and an engineer, Paul Hicks. It’s a project intended, they claim, to bring out Harrison’s contribution by clarifying the sound. It seems to me that, a few months after Spector’s death, what they’ve really been attempting to do is diminish the impact of Spector’s contribution and thereby to reduce what might be seen, in the light of his conviction on a charge of murdering the actress Lana Clarkson in a shooting incident at his home in 2003, as a stain on the record’s reputation.

The excuse for this apparent exercise in detoxification seems to be that George once said he might have liked this group of songs to have been produced with a lighter touch. I don’t think that’s good enough. He and Spector worked together over a period of months on the recording and mixing at Abbey Road, Trident and Apple studios. If Harrison had wanted the stripped-down sound that Spector produced for John Lennon on the Plastic Ono Band album that same year, he had plenty of opportunity to ask for it. Very clearly he didn’t. And nor did he choose to do anything about it in the three decades between the release of the album and his own death in 2001.

I spent £17 on the basic two-CD edition of the new version, as many will have been persuaded to do, and to me all the remixing does, by altering many of the aural dimensions and perspectives that Spector brought to it, is to diminish the grandeur and the impact of the music, robbing it of its character. It’s no longer the sharply focused record he and Harrison mixed, mastered and passed for release. It’s more ordinary. And, of course, the two people primarily responsible for its conception and execution are no longer around to offer their opinion.

Once again, I’d say that if Harrison had wanted his guitar lines to be louder, or his voice to be closer to the foreground, he could have had those things at the time, on demand. And if he’d wanted people to pay $999.98 or £859.99 for an “uber de luxe edition” including eight vinyl LPs, five CDs, a Blu-Ray disc, two books, a bookmark made from a felled oak tree in George’s garden at Friar Park, 1/6th scale “replica figurines” of George and the garden gnomes from the album cover, and a set of prayer beads, all housed within “an artisan-designed wooden crate”, I guess he’d have asked for that, too.

Having read all the advance publicity material, I was curious enough to wander down to Duke of York’s Square on the King’s Road in Chelsea to have a look at a promotional stunt devised to tie in with the release. This is a physical interpretation of Barry Feinstein’s cover photograph from the album, installed close by the entrance to the Saatchi Gallery. It’s by “world renowned floral artist Ruth Davis”, and you can see the result in the photograph above.

The idea is that you can take George’s place on the stool — you’ll have to bring your own hat and gumboots — and get a friend to take your photograph, which you can then circulate on your preferred social-media platform. It’ll be gone by the weekend, but to me it looked like bits and bobs left over from that ludicrous and expensively misconceived “mountain” currently positioned next to Marble Arch, at the top of Park Lane. Marble Arch was better without it, just as All Things Must Pass sounds better without someone else’s second thoughts. Some things are best left alone.

Alone and palely strumming…

There they were, half a century ago, alone and palely loitering, with their long dark hair and their flares and their Martin guitars and their debut albums on Transatlantic, regulars at Les Cousins or the Troubadour, peering up from bottom of the bill at Implosion or next weekend’s rain-drenched festival, finding slots on Sounds of the ’70s and the Whistle Test, maybe even Top of the Pops if they struck lucky with the right song — a “Catch the Wind”, a “Baker Street”, a “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?”, a “Streets of London” or an “Alone Again (Naturally)”.

British male singer-songwriters mostly came out of the local folk scene, which seemed to imbue them with a leaning towards the wistfully romantic. Their American counterparts, springing from close exposure to the blues and bluegrass traditions, seemed more robust in temperament. The exception would be Paul Simon, who shared the British tendency to what it would be unkind to call feyness — but then he’d spent time playing the London folk clubs as part of his formative experience, soaking up the vibe.

There was more to them than that archetype, of course, and the whole genre is interestingly captured in Separate Paths Together, a new three-CD box subtitled “An Anthology of British Male Singer-Songwriters 1965-75”. Compiled and annotated by David Wells, it parades an extraordinary range of artists in solo guise. Most of the usual suspects are here: Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, John Martyn, Donovan. Others — Kevin Ayers, Peter Hammill, Richard Thompson, Jim Capaldi, Mike Heron, Gary Farr, Dave Cousins — had made their initial reputations as members of bands. Free-standing solo artists range from Pete Atkin, who came out of the Cambridge Footlights putting melodies to Clive James’s effortfully intricate lyrics (maybe the nearest thing ever devised to an English version of French chanson), to Peter Skellern, whose deceptively artless “Hold On To Love” still sounds like a great pop record,

Among my favourites are David McWilliams’s “Days of Pearly Spencer”, as enduringly perfect an evocation of 1967 and the days of pirate radio as could be imagined; Bert Jansch’s brief, unadorned “Tell Me What Is True Love”; Mike Cooper’s “Paper and Smoke”, with its fine horn arrangement; Andy Roberts’s warmly nostalgic “All Around My Grandfather’s Floor”, from a poem by his Liverpool Scene bandmate Mike Evans; and Murray Head’s “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” — a record that everyone at Island in 1975 expected to be a huge hit, but mystifyingly wasn’t.

The alone-and-palely-loitering archetype is particularly well represented by Keith Christmas’s diaphanous “The Fawn”, Dave Cartwright’s poised “Song to Susan” and Duncan Browne’s lovely “Journey”, which kicks off the whole collection and makes me regret a crudely dismissive review I gave him when he supported Lou Reed at the Sundown in Edmonton in 1972 (not the happiest of juxtapositions, it must be said, and I wasn’t much kinder to Lou). I’d offer an apology, but he died of cancer in 1993, aged 46.

The tracks I’ve mentioned are on the first two discs, where the genre is stretched to include something like the heavily arranged “Jesus Christ Junior” by Patrick Campbell-Lyons, a member of the original Nirvana. The third disc is largely devoted to also-rans (Bill Fay, Chris Baker, Paul Brett) and anomalies (Steve Gibbons, Jona Lewie, Crispian St Peters), including Mike Hart’s “Disbelief Blues”, a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” homage, and Al Jones’s extremely creepy “Jeffrey Don’t You Touch”, a clumsy portrayal of a sex abuser that wouldn’t get anywhere near the radio today.

The two most obvious omissions from the set’s 66 tracks represent the genre’s opposite poles: the introspection of Nick Drake and the extroversion of Elton John. I guess their absence is explained by permission issues. Cat Stevens isn’t represented, either. But you already know what they sounded like.

* Separate Paths Together is out now on Cherry Red’s Grapefruit Records label. The photograph is of Duncan Browne; perhaps someone out there can tell me who took it.

The Weather Station live from Toronto

A year to the day since I was last able to see musicians performing in person, the Weather Station’s livestreamed concert from Toronto on Thursday provided a reminder of what’s been missing. Tamara Lindeman and her musicians were performing the 10 songs from her new album, Ignorance, shuffled in order but retaining the enigmatic allure that I wrote about in the March issue of Uncut.

I won’t repeat what I said in that review, except to note that the arrival of Marcus Paquin as Lindeman’s co-producer has brought a new perspective to her songs, which are now driven less — not at all, in fact — by strummed or finger-picked acoustic guitars and more by drums and bass, and decorated by subtle use of keyboards, electronics and wind instruments (and, on the album, a string trio). The new songs confront loss, both intimate and global: the departure of a lover, the disappearance of a species. These concerns, with their very different time-scales, are like messages lightly inscribed on two transparent sheets. They slide over each other, clarifying or converging, a pair of palimpsests coming in and out of focus over the band’s momentum.

It was a treat to be able to watch her and the band tackling this fascinating material. The live performance — in Toronto’s Revolution Recording Studios — turned out to emphasise the similarities rather than the differences between the songs, making the whole thing feel satisfyingly coherent. I was particularly struck by the restless swells of “Loss”, Christine Bourgie’s fine guitar solo on “Subdivisions”, the spellbound poise of “Trust”, the galloping rhythm of “Heart”, and the closing free-ish jam between Brodie West’s alto saxophone and Lindeman’s piano on “Robber”, where Ben Whiteley’s bass guitar and Kieran Adams’s drums conjured something like an alt-rock version of one of Norman Whitfield’s Temptations epics. (Here’s the album version of “Robbery”, in case you haven’t heard it.) The other musicians were Johnny Spence (piano), Will Kidman (guitar, keyboards), Ryan Driver (flute), Philippe Melanson and Evan Cartwright (percussion) and Felicity Williams, whose voice shadowed Lindman’s to particularly good effect on “Heart”.

Perfect sound (by Brenndan McGuire) and a restrained approach to lighting (Louise Simpson) and camerawork (Lulu Wei) ensured that the qualities which make the Weather Station so special were allowed to speak. In a little prologue, a just-recognisable Lindeman lay on a pebble beach under a sheet, reading a book, while a dancer wheeled and turned in the distance. We were taken back to that setting at half-time, just where you’d be turning over a vinyl album, and again at the very end, for Lindeman to read short verses by the American poet Ed Roberson. Nicely done, but the real pleasure was in witnessing her own poetry brought to life by musicians, with masks but no headphones or baffles, playing together in real time, so beautifully.

The Band at the Albert Hall

The story of the Band is one of the most beautiful and tragic in the history of popular music. But at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971, we only knew the half of it: the beautiful half. Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson gave us one of the finest concerts imaginable, something that would stay in the memory of everyone lucky enough to have been there.

It was one of those nights when you felt you knew every single person in the audience: a kind of clan gathering, drawn together by a tremendous sense of anticipation. It’s hard to imagine that there was a single person among the 5,000 who didn’t have every note of Music from Big Pink and The Band engraved on their hearts. Even so, we got more than we expected.

On a Monday afternoon two weeks earlier the five members of the Band could be found in the Hamilton Suite on the second floor of the Inn on the Park, close to Hyde Park Corner. After assembling on the balcony for group photographs, they gave interviews. I talked to Robertson and Danko, my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch spoke to Helm, Hudson and Manuel, while Barrie Wentzell took photographs for the spread we produced. The NME‘s Nick Logan discussed the history of jazz piano with Garth (I’m still jealous), and Caroline Boucher was there to introduce these mysterious musicians to the readers of Disc. It was a pleasant and polite affair, with drinks and canapés, arranged by their record company. They left us all looking forward to the gig, which would come towards the end of their European tour.

The Albert Hall concerts — there were two, on June 2 and 3 — had several salient features. The first was the layout of the instruments, arranged as if in a studio or a front room rather than on a proscenium stage, making it easy and natural for the musicians to swap instruments — Helm picking up a mandolin or a second Telecaster while Manuel took over at the drums, Danko setting aside the bass guitar for a fiddle, Hudson getting up from the organ to play tenor saxophone or accordion.

The second was the quality of the sound. The Albert Hall had been notoriously unfriendly to rock bands, whose amplified instruments floundered in a haze of unwanted natural echo created by the high ceiling. But, as Danko told me, the British audio engineer and PA builder Charlie Watkins had visited the Band in the US and noted the specifications of their regular equipment before creating something similar for their European concerts. Just as important, they played at a volume level which allowed them to hear and respond to each other while permitting the audience to appreciate the nuances of their music.

They played with an astonishing blend of finesse and emotion, of musicianship and modesty. There were four songs from Big Pink, eight from The Band, five from Stage Fright — released the previous summer — and two Motown covers, the Four Tops’ “Loving You Is Sweeter than Ever” and Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t Do It”, plus Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin'” as a final encore. They made even the most familiar of the songs sound new — and what a thrill it was to hear, in person, the voices of Danko, Manuel and Helm alternating leads and creating those overlapping coarse-grained harmonies.

Everything sounded even better than the records: more present, of course, but also more pristine, which was a surprise given the number of times they must have played these songs. The subtle complexity of “King Harvest” was laid out in all its rustic splendour. Hearts were broken as Danko sang “The Unfaithful Servant” with such tender ardour and mended by the centuries-old ache in Manuel’s voice on “I Shall Be Released”. Danko’s fretless bass imitated the weight of a tuba on “Time to Kill”. Robertson didn’t need to show off — the intro to “The Weight” was enough to tell us that the house’s electricity supply was running through the strings of his Tele — but the eight-bar solo bridging into Hudson’s tenor coda on “Unfaithful Servant” was worth the entire careers of some of the more famous guitarists in the audience.

Levon sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with fervour and drew both resonance and whipcrack from a lovely old kit — placed stage left, side on — that looked as though it might have been around since Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Garth gave us a hint of the pitch-warping capabilities of his keyboards on the opening “The Shape I’m In” and then, deep into the second half, let it all out on the unaccompanied four-minute introduction to “Chest Fever”, given its own title — “The Genetic Method” — and sounding as though the pipes of the mighty Albert Hall organ had been attached to his Lowrey console in order to facilitate some magical union of J. S. Bach and Sun Ra.

But it really wasn’t about the individuals. As Bruce Springsteen observes in the 2019 documentary Once Were Brothers, when those five musicians got together, “something miraculous occurred.” You could hear it when they kicked into “Baby Don’t Do It”, overlaying a Second Line accent on Holland-Dozier-Holland’s version of the Bo Diddley rhythm, generating a steady collective surge that had nothing to do with volume.

Most of that has been stored in my head for half a century, always ready to be unpacked in any discussion of the greatest gigs of all time. It was a thrill when three tracks — “Strawberry Wine”, “Rockin’ Chair” and “Look Out Cleveland” — turned up in 2005 on The Band: A Musical History, a six-CD box supervised by Robertson. Here was proof that the concert had been recorded — by EMI on a humble four-track machine, as it turns out. And now the whole thing, less only “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, is available as the second disc on a 50th anniversary edition of Stage Fright, with sound every bit as good as it was on the night.

In Testimony, his autobiography (which provided the basis of Once Were Brothers), Robertson describes the Albert Hall audience as “rippling with enthusiasm.” In the notes for the Stage Fright reissue, he calls it “one of the greatest live concerts the Band ever played.” What is clear now is that shadows were already looming. Newly acquired wealth and the ability to indulge in damaging habits had begun to warp the relationships between the musicians, eroding the work ethic and the sense of purpose that had driven them through the first two albums. In particular, a rift between Helm and Robertson would be opened and never closed. With The Last Waltz, in 1978, the story of the five-man band was over. Although Robertson’s take on the background events often invites a charge of self-justification, it seems understandable that his patience was eventually exhausted.

Now Richard, Rick and Levon are dead. But at the Albert Hall in June 1971, a last-minute decision ensured that the sound of the Band at their zenith would be preserved. You had to be there, and now you are. In a dark time, it’s a shaft of light.

* The new edition of Stage Fright is released on February 12 by Capitol Records in CD and vinyl formats. The original studio album is rearranged into the running order originally intended, and the set includes alternate mixes and an informal hotel-room session. The DVD of Once Were Brothers is on Dazzler Media. Robbie Robertson’s Testimony was published by William Heinemann in 2016. A revised edition of This Wheel’s on Fire, by Levon Helm with Stephen Davis, was published by Chicago Review Press in 2000. Barney Hoskyns’ Across the Great Divide: The Band and America (Viking, 1993) is highly recommended. The photographs of the Band at the Albert Hall on June 2, 1971 are by Barrie Wentzell (barriewentzell.com), and are used by kind permission.

On August 29, 1970

IoW Miles 2

Saturday at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival started at lunchtime with a two-hour solo set by John Sebastian during which, after delivering “Daydream”, “Nashville Cats”, “You’re a Big Boy Now” and others, he was unexpectedly joined by his former Lovin’ Spoonful colleague Zal Yanovsky, who had sent a note up to the stage asking to be invited to join in. Together they ran through some more of the Spoonful’s hits, including “Do You Believe in Magic” and the gorgeous “Darling Be Home Soon”. Sebastian finished off with “Younger Girl” and “Red-Eye Express”, leaving the crowd feeling beatific at the start of a day of unbroken sunshine.

An hour and half later came a different kind of singer-songwriter: Joni Mitchell, three albums into her career, already known for “Chelsea Morning”, “Both Sides, Now”, “Woodstock” and “Big Yellow Taxi”, wearing a long dress the colour of goldenrod, a few shades darker than her hair, and a discreet assortment of silver and turquoise jewellery. And she was about to face an ordeal that no one present would forget.

She came on with her guitar and began with “That Song About the Midway”. “Chelsea Morning” was next, but as she started the third verse she appeared to lose her way. After strumming on for a few more bars, she announced: “I don’t feel like singing that song so much.” She gave a little laugh and got a round of sympathetic applause, but already the strain of being alone on the stage in front of more than half a million people, delivering such intimate music, was beginning to tell, and her unease seemed to communicate itself to the crowd.

It’s hard to get that many people to be completely silent on a sunny afternoon. Her next little speech expressed annoyance. “When I hear someone saying, ‘Joni, smile for Amsterdam!’ it really puts me off and I get uptight and I forget the words and I get really nervous and it’s a drag. Just give me a little help, will you?” And then just as announced that she was going to play “Woodstock”, a disturbance in front of the stage led her to stand up and move away as a stoned boy was removed from the crowd.

She sat back down and started again. As she finished the song, a bearded man in a dark T-shirt who had been crouching behind the piano rose to his feet and asked if he could use her microphone. He wanted to make an announcement to the people in the encampment on the hill beyond the perimeter fence. Elliot Roberts, Mitchell’s manager, led a group of half a dozen people who quickly surrounded him and moved him away from the singer.

All the tensions of the weekend were coming to the surface. Some of the people in the crowd had chanted “Let him speak!” Was a rock festival a commercial enterprise or a free-for-all? Were the anarchists and situationists and freaks right to try and tear down the fences? Rikki Farr, the organisers’ spokesman, sensibly ordered the uniformed security guards to leave the stage. But how, in 1970, were you supposed to deal with a moment like that? For a minute, even in that brilliant Saturday sunshine, the atmosphere was closer to Altamont than Woodstock.

Shaken but determined to continue, Mitchell tried to resume her performance. Behind her back, the bearded man was finally being dragged away, and the crowd didn’t like the way it was done. So she stopped and made another speech, an angry and distressed plea for the chance to do her work: “Last Sunday I went to a Hopi ceremonial dance in the desert and there were a lot of people there and there were tourists who were getting into it like Indians and Indians who were getting into it like tourists, and I think that you’re acting like tourists, man. Give us some respect!”

It was brave, and it worked. She was able to complete her performance in relative peace, the crowd now more attentive and the atmosphere lightened appreciably by “Big Yellow Taxi”. Having been led away by Roberts at the end of the set, the sound of cheering brought her back for encores that washed away the memory of the earlier interruptions.

And that was just the start of an extraordinary sequence. Here’s what I wrote in the Melody Maker about the next performer: “Mr Herbert Khaury, alias Tiny Tim, alias Larry Love the Singing Canary, bounded on stage to sing ‘a few tunes from the early part of the century.’ Blowing kisses to the audience and strumming his ukelele, he seemed unlikely to retain the audience’s interest for long. But his rock and roll medley, with some of the most untogether playing ever heard (‘This is my wonderful English band… my wonderful English band’) was very amusing. The master stroke was his final medley of ‘There’ll Always Be an England’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, which somehow got the audience on its feet to sing these ridiculously patriotic songs.”

Tiny Tim’s bizarre bonhomie had removed the last trace of bad vibes. While the road crew rearranged the stage, Jeff Dexter, the festival’s DJ, made two crowd-pleasing choices: Otis Redding’s “Respect” and Free’s “All Right Now”, during which a multicoloured hot-air balloon floated above the crowd, its two occupants exchanging peace signs with the mass of humanity below.

Now it was late afternoon, and into the last rays of the sun slid Miles Davis, a 44-year-old jazz trumpeter who had served his apprenticeship almost a quarter of a century earlier with Charlie Parker and now faced the challenge of captivating 600,000 hippies. He took the stage in a thin red leather jacket over an orange knitted top, with studded blue jeans and silver boots. His sidemen — the saxophonist Gary Bartz, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett on electric keyboards, Dave Holland on bass guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Airto Moreira on percussion — had come as they were.

In August 1970 Miles was moving from a freer version of the complex music his quintet played in the second half of the ’60s to a direct engagement with funk. He’d already played to young audiences at the Fillmores in San Francisco and New York, on bills with the Grateful Dead and the Steve Miller Band. But the ties to the earlier music were not yet cut. The rhythm section he brought to the Isle of Wight ensured that however groove-centred the music became, it retained its freedom and complexity.

An unbroken set alluded to five compositions from the previous couple of years — “Directions”, “Bitches Brew”, “It’s About that Time”, “Sanctuary” and “Spanish Key” — before finishing with a fragment of his usual fanfare. Shrewdly, he played for barely 35 minutes: enough to intrigue and even beguile the hippies who didn’t know his music, not enough to try their patience.

The opening salvo took no prisoners. Miles wanted the music to burn, and he was concentrating hard as he led the way with fierce stabs and insolent runs on his lacquered instrument. The stage was bracketed by Jarrett, on an RMI keyboard that gave him the sounds of an electric piano and an organ, and Corea, who had what looks like a ring modulator on the top of his Hohner instrument and used it to make bleeps and squiggles of sound. Holland brought a jazz musician’s inventiveness to the funk bass lines, which was not what Miles would ultimately want, but there was a passage when he and DeJohnette meshed into a kind of broken second-line rhythm that lifted the music right up. Bartz flighted his brief soprano and alto solos with a keening sound and a striking trajectory, while Airto added the exotic noises of the shaker, the pandeira, the agôgo, and the cuica, a Brazilian friction drum with a distinctive whooping sound.

Miles prowled the stage, never far from the action. A quarter of an hour in, midway through “It’s About that Time”, virtually unrecognisable from its treatment on In a Silent Way a year earlier, the music took off. As it seethed and roiled, Miles returned to centre-stage and played two short, quiet phrases that redirected everything. Then he sketched the exposed theme of “Sanctuary” before cueing up the riff of “Spanish Key”.

He let the band get on with it for five minutes before raising his horn and lowering it back to the microphone, the signal for the funk to back off and textures to be laid over the simmering pulse behind his exquisite open-horn phrases, some of the them hinting at old Moorish influence. As he returned to the staccato jabs, the rhythm section, which had been simmering quietly, rose up again in response, coming back to the boil.

And suddenly the time was up. The music shuddered towards a halt. While the rhythm section wound down, Miles bent down to pick up his silver mute, waved his trumpet once to the crowd, grabbed his shoulder bag and his jacket, and was gone, into the dusk, leaving us to talk about the extraordinary nature of what we’d heard, and what it meant to hear it in the context of a giant rock festival. When they asked him the names of the pieces he’d played, he said, “Call it anything.”

IoW tickets

* The full sets by Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis are on YouTube, filmed by Murray Lerner for his documentary on the festival. Miles’s set can also be found on the album Bitches Brew Live, released in 2011 by Columbia Legacy, and on Electric Miles: A Different Kind of Blue, an Eagle Rock DVD from 2004.

‘Echo in the Canyon’

Laurel_Canyon-3

There’s a lot to like about Echo in the Canyon, a new 90-minute documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene in the mid- to late-’60s, directed by Andrew Slater. One asset is the constant presence of Jakob Dylan, who has been silent as a recording artist for several years but here proves to be a sensitive interviewer and performer. I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that someone who’s grown up as the son of Bob Dylan isn’t sycophantic towards his celebrated interviewees, but his thoughtful silences are often expressive — they give us, too, the chance to think.

It’s an unusual film in that its framing device is the assembling of a group of musicians, led by Dylan, to perform in concert the songs of the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, and Buffalo Springfield. Dylan’s on-stage guests include Regina Spektor, Beck and Fiona Apple — and, I guess, the members of his band, the Wallflowers. Those he interviews include Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, Jackson Browne, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. There are lots of archive clips, many of them cherishable.

The real focus is very specific. It’s the moment folk music and rock music merged in the Byrds’ version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr Tambourine Man”. Specifically, it’s the moment Roger (then known as Jim) McGuinn got hold of a 12-string Rickenbacker — the second to be produced, we learn — and constructed that famous introduction, which echoed the “jingle-jangle” of the lyric and became a genre in itself, working its way through Tom Petty and ending up as power-pop.

A lot is made of the influence of the Beatles on this movement, quite correctly, and also of the way the Byrds’ early records influenced George Harrison to write “If I Needed Someone”. Personally I think they should have given considerable credit to the Searchers’ versions of Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono’s “Needles and Pins” and Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk in the Room”, which came out in 1964 and predicted the jingle-jangle sound with great precision. Also, given Nash’s presence, some mention should have been made of the Hollies’ influence.

But then David Crosby doesn’t think much of the pop music that came before… well, before David Crosby. It was, he says, all “moon-and-june and baby-I-love-you”. Oh, right. “I close my eyes for a second and pretend it’s me you want / Meanwhile I try to act so nonchalant.” That’s not poetry, huh? Sure, “To dance beneath the diamond sky / With one hand waving free / Silhouetted by the sea” is poetry, too. Ah well. Tutto fa brodo, as they say.

Having read two biographies of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young for a Guardian review last year, my appetite for stories of internecine warfare in the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield is pretty well sated, and nothing uttered here adds interesting detail or insight. It’s nice to see Brian Wilson and to hear Michelle Phillips, and Petty’s conversation with Dylan in a guitar shop is apparently the last interview he gave before his death in 2017. But anyone expecting this to be the story of the Laurel Canyon of Joni Mitchell and James Taylor will be disappointed, which makes the presence of Jackson Browne puzzling: he talks well, of course, but really had nothing to do with what the film is talking about.

Apparently Slater was inspired to make the documentary by seeing Jacques Demy’s 1968 film Model Shop, set in Hollywood and starring Anouk Aimée and Gary Lockwood, with a soundtrack by Spirit (who, like Love and the Doors, are never mentioned). I’ve never seen it, but the clips we’re shown certainly make me want to rectify that omission. The director tries to recreate that lost vibe as Dylan cruises the boulevards and wanders from one legendary studio to another: United and Western (now merged), Capitol… not Gold Star, of course, demolished many years ago. The use of Laurel Canyon itself is disappointing: I wanted get more of a sense of the topography and to see the houses where these people lived and (in every sense) played.

Some of the newly performed music is enjoyable, although the chopped-up editing can be frustrating, and having Stills and Clapton perform a guitar duel in studios on different continents wasn’t really a very good idea at all. The best comes at the end: a sensitive version of “Expecting to Fly” is the finale, preceded by Dylan and Beck duetting quite beautifully in front of their band on the Byrds’ arrangement of Goffin and King’s “Goin’ Back”. “A little bit of courage is all we lack / So catch me if you can / …” It made me stand up, grab the nearest air guitar, and find a harmony to sing. And that doesn’t happen every day, I can tell you.

* Echo in the Canyon is on Amazon Prime. The photograph is taken from the Laurel Canyon Radio website: http://www.laurelcanyonradio.com/view-from-laurel-canyon/

Roland Kirk and friends

Roland Kirk poster

I found this flyer the other day in a box of old stuff. It’s from 1963, and it reminds me of a few things. The first is that this Roland Kirk concert was in Nottingham and not in Leicester, as I wrote in an earlier piece (now corrected). The second is that his tour was organised by Ronnie Scott’s, where he had been performing. The third is that there were some interesting musicians to be seen and heard that night.

Stan Tracey was the house pianist at Ronnie’s, then still located in Gerrard Street, from 1960 to 1967, by which time it had moved to Frith Street. After a sticky patch in the ’70s he went on to a long and distinguished career as a composer and bandleader, leading to the award of an CBE in 2008, five years before his death at 86.

Malcolm Cecil was an excellent bassist (and early member of Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated) who migrated to the USA, took an interest in synthesisers, and palled up with Bob Margouleff, a man of similar instincts. Together, as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, they released Zero Time in 1971 before going on to provide the crucial synthesiser expertise on Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, thus helping to shape the direction of music in the 1970s and beyond.

Johnny Butts was a very fine drummer who played with the Emcee Five in Newcastle (alongside Ian and Mike Carr) before moving to London and contributing to the groups of Ronnie Ross, Humphrey Lyttelton, Tony Coe, Dick Morrissey and Gordon Beck, and the Tubby Hayes Big Band. He died in a road accident in Bermuda in 1966, aged 25.

Brian Auger was a useful young bebop pianist with Tommy Whittle and others before switching to the Hammond organ in the year he made this tour with Kirk. In 1965 the Brian Auger Trinity was joined by Julie Driscoll, Rod Stewart and Long John Baldry to form the Steam Packet, a very fine live band who never had a proper recording session. The Driscoll/Auger version of “This Wheel’s on Fire”, a Bob Dylan/Rick Danko composition circulated on the original Basement Tapes publisher’s acetates, is on anyone’s list of great ’60 singles. Later Auger formed Oblivion Express and moved to California, where he still lives, aged 80.

Irish-born Rick Laird had left Australia for London in 1962 to study at the Guildhall School of Music and quickly became a first-choice bass player on the London scene, playing with many visiting Americans at the Scott Club. In 1966 he won a scholarship to the Berklee School in Boston, played with Buddy Rich’s big band, and switched to bass guitar. In 1971 he was recruited by John McLaughlin to help form the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom he toured and recorded. Later he toured with Stan Getz and Chick Corea. More recently he has taught bass and pursued a second career as a photographer.

Phil Kinorra was a 20-year-old drummer whose nom de batterie was made up, in a touching display of hero-worship, of bits of the names of three of London’s finest modern jazz drummers of the time: Phil Seaman, Tony Kinsey and Bobby Orr. His real name was Robert Anson, he was born in Nottingham (so this gig was a return home), and he also appeared alongside Graham Bond and Johnny Burch on Don Rendell’s wildly exciting 1963 Jazzland LP, Roarin’. In the mid-’60s he adopted a new identity and led a mod-soul band called Julian Covey and the Machine, who recorded “A Little Bit Hurt” for Island in 1967 and whose constantly shifting personnel included the organist Vincent Crane (later of Arthur Brown’s band and Atomic Rooster), the guitarists Jim Cregan, Dave Mason and John Morshead, the ill-fated bassist Cliff Barton and the definitely not ill-fated bassist John McVie, and the saxophonist and flautist Bob Downes. When psychedelia beckoned, Anson/Kinorra/Covey metamorphosed into Philamore Lincoln, writing “Temma Harbour”, recorded by Mary Hopkin as the second follow-up to “Those Were the Days” in 1969, and releasing The North Wind Blew South, an album of what would now be called Sunshine Pop, on Epic in 1970. He left the music business later in that decade and seems never to have returned.

Quite a lot of history for one tatty bit of paper, which I stuck up on my bedroom wall as a 16-year-old and then carried around from place to place, from one life to another, for almost six decades.